Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring



USA/NZ 2001
director : Peter Jackson
script : Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, based on novel by John (JRR) Tolkien
producers include : Jackson, Walsh, Bob & Harvey Weinstein, Robert Shaye
cinematography : Andrew Lesnie
editing : John Gilbert
music : Howard Shore
lead actors : Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin
with : Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, John Rhys-Davies,
Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving
178 minutes

The Lord of the Rings : The Fellowship of the Ring is three hours of persuasive, exciting, heart-pounding, eye-popping, spectacular nonsense. Theres nothing wrong with epic entertainment, of course, but you have to wonder whether its worth lavishing so much time (theirs and ours), money, talent and effort on the fatuous 50-year-old mental doodlings of an Oxford don. Despite the moviemakers delusions of grandeur this is a project swollen with its own self-importance, taking its cue from old John sorry, J R R Tolkien himself, right from that impossible mouthful of a ten-word title.

Tolkien, of course, made no bones about his borrowing from Beowulf, Arthurian legend, Wagners Ring of the Valkyrie, Homers Odyssey and other sources to create his own legend as an excuse for a series of concocted languages and cultures. The book has been described as an exercise in philology (the study of language), with the story pretty much secondary and arbitrary: Frodo Baggins (Wood) inherits an all-powerful ring from his cousin Bilbo (Holm). His wizard friend Gandalf (McKellen) realises that the ring must be destroyed before it can be reclaimed by its maker, the satanic Lord Sauron. But the ring can only be destroyed where it was made in Mordor, Saurons kingdom. Frodo and Gandalf set off on the perilous trek to Mordor, accompanied by hobbits Sam (Astin), Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), dwarf Gimli (Rhys-Davies), human warriors Boromir (Bean) and Aragorn (Mortensen) and elf archer Legolas (Bloom): the nine-strong Fellowship of the Ring

Rings caused little stir on its first appearance back in the 1950s Mervyn Peakes Gormenghast attracted much more interest and serious consideration. It was only when Rings was re-issued in American paperback that it clicked with the same late-60s altered-states crowd that turned 2001 into a blockbuster, and its influence on impressionable prog-rock musicians was immediate and profound. For years it lingered quietly on in the shadowy world of Dungeons&Dragons fantasy-game playing – until now. But no matter how dramatically Jackson shifts his characters between The Shire, Rivendell, Moria and Mordor, these are all suburbs of the same grim territory: Squaresville.

Watching Fellowship is like being teleported into a series of Roger Dean mid-70s prog-rock album covers, with the occasional foray into the sulphuric world of their bastard cousins, the sleeves of heavy metal LPs. In movie terms, its like alternating between Ridley Scotts Legend and Michael Manns The Keep, except with worse music. Tolkien whose fantasy is strictly Anglo-Saxon would have hated the movies relentless Celtic pan-pipes soundtrack, but they’re perfect for the soft-rock mood Jackson wants to create: the end-credits song is written and performed by Enya, who’s about as far from the cutting edge of music as its possible to get.

Jackson pulls off some impressive visual feats in Rings in conjunction with the amazing sets crafted by his collaborators, and the equally amazing New Zealand countryside, crafted by God, but that doesn’t make him a visual stylist, much less any kind of cinematic visionary. Hes more of a crazed enthusiast, closer to the rough edges of Kevin Smiths Dogma than, say, the loopy surrealism of David Lynchs Dune. Theres no shortage of amateurish moments when his excitement gets the better of him, including a hilarious Jackson-on-mushrooms sequence where he humiliates Cate Blanchett (as Elf queen Galadriel) by having her float in the air while electric-blue lights zip and pop like something out of a bad Toyah Willcox video.

While the other actors avoid such embarrassment, its painful to watch classically-trained performers like McKellen, Holm and Bean dignifying Tolkiens dialogue by treating it like Shakespearean battle poetry. No such problems with Christopher Lee he’s been mouthing this kind of portentous nonsense for six decades, and actually thinks its good, important, psychologically intricate material. In fact, Rings has no more depth than Harry Potter, which, for all its faults, never took itself this seriously. As a movie, Rings is a more exciting experience the opening battle against Sauron and the climactic confrontation with the demon Balrog in the ruins of Moria, are genuinely stunning moments. But to be the truly great film some viewers and critics have hailed, shouldn’t Rings do as much for the mind as it does for the eyes and the nerves?

If anything, the movie is anti-thought: the more you think about it, the worse it gets. Leaving aside the very dodgy racial angle, Tolkiens fable is an anxiety dream about the industrialisation of the British countryside specifically, the growth of Birmingham, which Tolkien feared was about to engulf his idyllic home village of Sarehole. Rural = good, urban = bad is Rings fundamental message, with the hobbits as caricatures of English peasantry, their twee countryside threatened by the brutal, tree-destroying Orcs. But neither Tolkien nor Jackson seem to have thought any of this through.

And if Fellowship of the Ring actually is about anything, shouldn’t it at least be about fellowship? If so, who does Sam, who’s supposedly Frodos best friend and no kind of social inferior, keeps calling him Mister Frodo all the time like he’s some kind of servant flunkey. At the end, after the pair have been through all manner of tribulations, Sam says it again – Frodo turns round with an understanding smile on his face and we think: at last, he’s going to say Sam, just call me Frodo. But no: Im glad youre with me, Sam, is all he can manage. As the credits roll and Enyas warblings fill the cinema, you find yourself hating Frodo, Elijah Wood, Peter Jackson, John Tolkien, and everyone else involved in the whole damn palaver. Even as you impatiently start wondering whats going to happen next.

25th December, 2001
(seen Dec-20-01, Odeon, Mansfield)


by Neil Young